The expectations of a college education are changing. Once upon a time, students and parents alike were content with college being an exploratory time in a young person’s life. Students were encouraged to experience a variety of academic disciplines with the hope that one would resonate and lead to the declaration of a major and usher the way to a career. This phenomena of using college to “find yourself”, however, is rapidly evaporating. Every year, a few students call me after a semester or two of college and ask, “what should I do?” These are the same students who were adamant about using college to expose themselves to an array of courses and are now, unfortunately, recognizing that time flies and big life decisions need to be made. While I laud their initial academic curiosity, it pains me to see them scrambling to take the prerequisites that will allow them to declare a major.
Students who use their last two years of high school to outline an educational plan with clear academic goals are more focused and successful during college. Their full immersion into their classes makes the academic experience more enjoyable and eases the transition to a career post-college. For years, I have helped students to recognize that college is a minuscule portion of their life experience. It should be taken seriously, and going in with a sense of purpose and with a potential major in mind is the ideal.
So how can a student identify a potential major? There are many personality and career assessment tools out there that require a student to take an online survey to gauge what might be most suitable. Many students have access to Naviance at their schools and many Independent Educational Consultants use tests like Major Match or YouScience. At Strategic Admissions Advice, we use Do What You Are, which is an online survey that analyzes data and generates a report based off of a student’s strengths and interests. Suggestions for majors and careers are based on stable personality traits rather than ever-changing interests and abilities. We believe that this provides more information about what a student should pursue in regards to courses, a major(s) and a career.
When I was in admissions, I was always impressed with the high school student who knew what they wanted to do in college. Their application became powerful. Now, as an IEC, I actively discourage my students from choosing “undecided” when given the choice to indicate an area of academic interest on their applications. The operative word here is “interest”; why not select something that is genuinely of “interest” to them? Selecting “undecided” is an easy way for colleges to assume lack of focus and for students to make their application look like everyone else’s. Institutions of higher education want ambitious, driven young people to make contributions to their classrooms. Colleges want students who are engaged and hungry to learn. They should not be “undecided”. They should be “interested”.
Ask any college what are they looking for in an applicant, and they will usually reply that they are looking for students who will diversify a class. They need different kids, from different backgrounds with different interests and abilities. Just as they may need a new quarterback and/or bassoonist, they also need an aspiring environmentalist and/or architect. What a student may be able to add to the intellectual community of a college campus is highly regarded in the admissions process. The only way for a college to determine who will add that value is by gleaning what the applicant expresses as a likely major and what they write about in an essay.
Please do not think that once a student indicates a potential major or academic interest that they are bound forever. Very rarely do students commit exclusively to one discipline. Most colleges give students to the end of their sophomore year to declare a major. By indicating an academic interest, a high school applicant is actually taking a bit of control in their admissions process and defining himself or herself the way they want to be seen. In an admissions game with very little certainty, it is empowering for a student to research a certain program and describe why they are a qualified candidate for it.
Of course, not all students are the same and some still may have no clue what courses to take, major to declare or career to pursue. That’s more than ok. Even if a student truly is “undecided” they should take an assessment, understand their personality type and what their options are. With proper guidance, strengths, interests and schools that are a match and make the most sense for them will be identified. Colleges and college admission strategies are not “one size fits all” but it never hurts to have concrete suggestions on how to maximize the academic experience.
As a dynamic leader, educational strategist, emerging author and speaker, Shereem Herndon-Brown’s experiences in the field are unparalleled. As an educator for almost twenty years and entrepreneur for almost a decade, he has counseled many students and families through the often frustrating private school and college “admissions maze.” Having also served as an admission officer at Georgetown University, Shereem has worked on both sides of the desk. Shereem is a graduate of Wesleyan University with a Bachelors degree in English and a Masters of Arts degree from the Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury College. In 2005, he was selected by the National Association of Independent Schools as an E.E. Ford Fellow for Aspiring Heads of School. Additionally, he has served on the Board of Trustees at La Cima Elementary Charter School in his native Brooklyn, New York. He is also Member of the Independent Educational Consulting Association (IECA), Southern Association of College Admissions Counseling (SACAC) and the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). He has been quoted in the New York Times, Points North Magazine and written for Suwanee Magazine as well as Uptown Magazine.